The City Without Walls
by Jeff Somers
I was curiously reluctant to go up to the three of them after the funeral. With the gray sky behind them and the wind playing with their hair, their ties, her skirt, they looked otherworldly, tall blond gods resplendent in their grief. I'd never known them all that well, in the first place. I didn't really know anyone at the funeral any more-they were all people I used to know, now. Familiar faces, fatter and grosser than I recalled. Except for the Benderbys. Except for William Benderby, of course, lying dead and much changed in his coffin.
Looking at them made me feel ugly and stupid. Mickey Benderby, youngest, still glowing with athletic charm, blond hair almost white-he was, actually, almost an albino, so pale he might be transparent. But a healthy flush in his face made him boyish, and he dressed in dark clothes to give himself gravitas. He wore his expensive suit as if he'd been born in it, the gold cuff links not looking at all ridiculous on him, his windswept hair not too long, and agreeably messy, as if he'd swung out of bed in Amsterdam, boarded a plane, and arrived just moments before the ceremony, looking pressed.
Carol Benderby, the oldest, slim and blank-faced, stood next to Mick, smoking a cigarette, the wind stealing away the smoke as she exhaled it. She was beautiful, not as pale as Mickey, with a wonderful body and a steady, appraising stare that made men want to please her, to get some reaction from her. She turned to say something to her brother Daniel, and smiled in a low-wattage, smoky way that made her whole face seem to glow with untapped energy. I'd had a crush on Carol when we'd been younger, when I'd known William, but then I think everyone who met carol crushed on her. She was pretty and tiny and rich.
Daniel looked older than Carol, but wasn't. He had cleaned up for the funeral but it hadn't helped much; he still looked hungover. he was darker than his siblings, and his beard, though just shaved that morning, had already gathered like scummy storm clouds on his face. His tie was undone. As if by some will of their own his clothing was undoing itself-a button there, a knot here-until eventually he would be slovenly and sour, which was his natural state, so it was perhaps not surprising that he reverted to it instinctively. Still, he had an aura of command about him, the sense of a man used to being obeyed. He was the sort, I remembered, who instilled fear in people who didn't know him.
Standing all together, the Benderby children-no longer children, but that was how I remembered them, a decade ago back in school-drew every eye, the natural subjects of all thought and conversation. Rich, talented, attractive people, related to each other, all still single and still mysterious. All the Benderbys were like that: Thick as thieves with each other. I remembered accompanying William home one semester break, when we were still enamored with the egalitarian world of college and thought maybe we could be friends, and being struck by how the Benderby family seemed to have endless secrets between each other. Secret ceremonies, passwords, anecdotes-over three days at the huge house in upstate New York, I'd been almost constantly confused. The Benderbys almost spoke in code. If you didn't know the stories, the inside jokes, you were bewildered.
I never went back. William never invited me again anyway.
I hesitated a moment more, and then forced myself to walk over to them. I'd known them, a little, after all, and I chided myself for being childish. Feeling oafish and clumsy, I slogged through the mud towards the surviving Benderby children. When I was halfway there, the three of them noticed me, and watched my approach with calm disinterest, eyes hooded, bodies still under huge black umbrellas.
When I stopped in front of the trio, searching for the right words, Carol shocked me by holding out a pale hand, large for a woman of her size.
"Stephen," she said with a faint smile, a ghostly thing that might have been timid, or mocking. "Very good of you to come."
I blinked in confusion, feeling foolish in damp pants and a small, compact umbrella that did not really offer much protection. "You remember me?"
Her smile ticked wider. Behind her, the brothers continued to stare at me with something resembling interest. Mick dragged on his cigarette with his hands in his pockets, expelling smoke through his nose.
"Of course! You and William were such good friends in school. It really is good of you to come. William would have been pleased. Is pleased, I supposed, somewhere."
I realized I was still holding her hand, staring up into her gray eyes. I wanted to snatch my hand away and apologize, but she didn't seem at all uncomfortable. She turned her head a little.
"Mickey, Danny, you remember Stephen Drake? William roomed with him in freshman year."
Mickey just nodded at me, but Daniel said "You came up to the old house that summer, stayed a few days."
I nodded, feeling ridiculous at the flush of pleasure I felt at being remembered. "Yes. Some time ago."
A few seconds of silence, then, and I knew the time had come for me to leave. I pulled my hand reluctantly from Carol's and nodded vaguely all around. "I'm very sorry for your loss. I'll leave you alone now."
"Thank you," Daniel said with a sort of half-bow. "For coming."
I turned away, shoes squelching damply. I imagined them behind me, under what had to be a football field of umbrellas, dry and manicured. I'd never had money. It hadn't bothered me growing up-I wasn't poor, by any stretch, and I didn't feel any need to be rich. Until I roomed with William Benderby. William taught me to envy money. No, that wasn't quite right. The Benderbys taught me to envy money.
William brought me home over Christmas break. I'd been more
than happy to leave my poor mother alone over the holidays to join him; we'd lived together for five months and liked each other, shared a sense of humor and some sensibilities. Back in the dorm, he'd just been William, my room-mate. More handsome than me, easier with girls, but not that different.
We took the train. William had insisted, saying it would be an adventure. In his torn jeans, white oxford shirt and blue blazer he was almost a caricature of a rich kid, but I didn't notice. He was quiet, sitting across from me in the cheap, torn vinyl seats and staring out the window. I'd been disappointed, expecting our usual banter and joking, but he'd just sat there with one of his unfiltered cigarettes behind an ear, watching the trees go by outside. It was funny how often that happened when I was younger: Things took on the feel and weight of regularity over a period of time, and then suddenly changed, snapped back to reality. Reality was never my choice.
At the train station, a car was waiting. A bluff, red-faced man in a bad suit greeted us cheerfully, taking our bags and loading them into the big black car. At first I'd though he was Bill's father, but that didn't make sense, the way they shook hands and spoke so vaguely to each other. In the back seat I started to get really uncomfortable, because William was quiet, and I started to go over all of our conversations. Had I misinterpreted? Had his invitation been grudging, or polite? Had he expected me to know better than to accept? Was he resenting me?
The house was big, up in the foothills somewhere-you had to drive almost an hour from the train station to get there. William just sat and smoked, not talking, the whole way, and when we pulled into the drive in front, he glanced over at me and offered me a ghostly, half-smile as a consolation prize.
The three days that followed were in slow motion. Danny, Mick, and Carol arrived shortly after we did, all of them tanned and slim and easy with themselves. I felt disfigured. They Moved with such grace and confidence-I always felt like someone was going to yell at me, and didn't like to be left alone by William. But the others just did whatever they felt like. Smoked cigarettes, raided the locked liquor cabinets-it didn't matter. They talked like adults and were witty. They dressed stylishly in a casual, off-the-floor way I envied. They knew everything, about everything.
William was the worst. He looked like he was good at everything naturally, without even trying. Any subject that came up, he had some experience with. His siblings obviously regarded him as the brightest and most charming of them. I was realistic: I knew I was intelligent, and not bad-looking, and had talent for certain things. But compared to the Benderby children, I was gross and useless, a mishappen leper. I could only conclude that their money had something to do with their success, their health, their happiness.
Because they were happy. It would have been bearable if they'd been miserable, if they'd been jealous, dysfunctional richies whose money had ruined them. But they were bright and witty and pleasant, and when I woke up on day three and knew I was going home, I was disappointed and glad simultaneously. I loved the Benderbys. I wanted to fuck Carol until she screamed my name, and I wanted to be counted an equal by Mickey, Danny, and William. But they were driving me crazy, making me feel inferior. Or I was making myself feel inferior, and what was the difference?
No one made a big deal out of my departure. I got the impression they would forget about me the moment I was gone, and I felt like I'd failed somehow, that William had expected something of me that I hadn't delivered. Post-adolescent bullshit angst, I'm sure, but it lingered...it lingers still. I took a taxi back to the train station and went home, depressed. Things were never the same between William and I after that. We stayed friendly throughout school, but never roomed together again. I saw his brothers and sister from time to time when they visited, and they were always cordial, interested. But William and I weren't friends any longer, and I hadn't seen him in five years.
And now he was dead.
"Steve! Hey, Stevie!"
I paused and looked down at my shoes, which were the best
ones I owned-or had been-and which were now being ruined by the sucking, grasping mud. Turning, I resisted the ridiculous urge to shake my feet free of the offending mud, and managed to slop more onto my cuffs. Sighing in resignation, I looked up. A blading, heavyset man was taking mincing, dainty steps towards me, his own umbrella huge, protecting him and a good slice of ground around him. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. I knew there had to be people at the funeral I hadn't seen in some time; I studied his face carefully as he danced closer to me. I felt damp and tired.
Panting, he skidded to a halt in front of me, but had to stand almost two feet away because of the circumference of his umbrella.
"Steve-you're Stephen Drake, right?"
I nodded, offering him my best mystified half-smile. "Yes?"
"C'mon, I'm not that fat. It's Darryl-Darryl Simmons!"
Recognition sparked, a single memory: A big, red-faced kid after twelve beers, jumping into the air in the living room of my rented house and decimating the chandelier in one shot. "Holy fuck!" I said, grinning as I shook his hand. "Dimmons!"
He laughed awkwardly. "No one calls me that any more, but yeah. Listen, you rushing home? Wanna have a drink?"
I wasn't rushing home, but I wasn't in the mood to have drinks with someone I hadn't seen or even thought of in years. I offered him my regretful smile, but before I could get another word out, he reached out and grasped my arm.
"Listen, I don't mean to be rude or an imposition, Stevie, but I've got to get something off my chest, and you're the only friendly face I see here." He blinked at me for a moment. "Well, not all that friendly, I guess, but friendly enough. Come on-one drink! I'll buy."
His outburst had done nothing to convince me to stay, so I dialed my regretful smile to maximum regret and shook my head a little, looking down sadly at my ruined shoes. "No, Sorry Darryl-sorry about the Dimmons thing, old habit, you know-sorry but I've got to be getting home."
His hand tightened on my arm. "Come on, Steve-I'm serious." He looked around and leaned in towards me. "Listen, what I need to talk about, it's about Billy. Benderby," he added, unnecessarily.
I knew I shouldn't take the bait, but I couldn't resist. "What about him?"
Darryl looked around again and then back at me, his face an unhappy mask. "I think Bill Benderby was murdered, Steve."
I blinked. "Excuse me?"
He nodded gravely. "And I think he was murdered by them."
I followed his barely-thrust chin, and found myself staring at Carol, Mickey, and Dan Benderby. They were all staring right back at us.
"Look, I know it seems crazy," Darryl said around a mouthful of
cheese fries. "So maybe all I need is to talk it out, say it out loud,
and maybe I'll conclude it's crazy too. Okay? I saw you and I thought, there's someone else who knew William when he was alive. I just had to talk to you."
I nodded noncommittally, looking around. The Blue Moon Saloon was a rathole, with rickety furniture and a vague smell of fish in the air. At two in the afternoon it had four patrons, two of whom were Darryl and me. I sipped my stout and tried to see my watch without being too obvious. "All right, Darryl, here I am. Why do you think William Benderby was murdered?"
He leaned back and picked up his own beer, free hand rubbing his belly absent-absentmindedly. "Well, for one, he told me."
"Before he died, he told me he thought he might be murdered." Darryl sighed, taking a prodigious gulp from his glass. "We started spending time together again about a year ago. Ran into each other by accident. Not that we were great friends or anything, but we started having lunch now and then, chatting." He smiled sadly. "Friendly face, and all that. I think we were both the type who hadn't kept a lot of friends, and found ourselves lonely."
"So, in the course of a nostalgic trip down memory lane, he leaned forward and told you he thought someone was trying to kill him?"
"Not someone," Darryl replied. "His brothers and sisters."
I smiled. "Come on."
Darryl nodded. "No kidding! We were at a bar, getting kind of drunk on Martinis, which Billy liked to drink. I don't much care for 'em, but when Billy bought the drinks, he bought whatever the fuck he wanted to drink, and fuck you if you didn't like it. After his third one, he asked me if I was his friend." He shook his head. "I was touched, you know? Back in school, to be honest, I'd always wanted Bill Benderby to be my friend. Not 'cause he was rich, because he was cool." He shrugged, shaking his head. "Anyway, he kind of broke down, told me he feared for his life, because his brothers and sister were plotting to kill him. I figured he was just morose and drunk, you know? We've all been kind of. . .morose and drunk, from time to time, huh?"
I nodded, mainly to avoid having to discuss this with Darryl.
"I didn't really put too much into it, you know? I kind of forgot all about it. I didn't see Bill for a few weeks-we only saw each other a couple of times a year anyway-and then, pow, I woke up one morning and got the news that he was dead."
The smell of his cheese fries was making me sick. "But not murdered. He was drunk and fell down a flight of stairs. Broke his neck."
Darryl looked up at the ceiling. "Yes, that's the story." He looked back at me. "Listen," he said, his voice suddenly serious and calm, "I thought of what he'd said immediately, of course, but I didn't think about it too hard. It's ridiculous! People you know don't get murdered. But when I got here, when I saw them," he paused, plucked a gooey fry from the plate and waved it around. "I don't know, Stevie. I saw those cold bastards and I thought, shit, they could have done it."
For a moment, we stared at each other.
"So, uh, that's why I wanted to hash this out with someone. Someone else who knew them all, a little." He fidgeted, popping the congealed fry into his mouth. "Am I nuts? Wait," he held up a greasy hand. "Start here: Do you think those fucking automatons, the Benderbys, could kill William?"
I thought about it, sipping my beer. It didn't take me very long. "Sure. Sure they could." I was startled at myself, but as I considered it again I realized I meant it. The Benderby kids struck me as people who could kill someone. Even their brother. I shook myself and set my glass down firmly. "But that doesn't mean they did, Darryl," I pointed out. "Come on! You're accusing them of fratricide."
"Of what-no, murder. I'm accusing them of murder."
I regrouped while he shoveled another handful of fries into his mouth. "Look, Darryl, this is nuts. Billy might have been depressed, paranoid-unbalanced. It could be a coincidence."
Darryl squinted at me and said through a full mouth "You ever know Billy Benderby to be susceptible to moods, mental breakdowns, and such?"
"I haven't known the man for ten years. Who knows what happened to him."
"You know. Bill was a fucking rock. He was one of those guys you knew would never need help. Or guidance. Or anything."
He was right about that. William had always given the impression that he was always completely in charge, never rattled, never bothered, never worried. I'd always assumed it was a laziness, of sorts, born of knowing that if he failed, he was still fucking rich as hell.
I spread my hands. "What's the motive, then, Darryl? All murders have to have a motive. Did William mention one when he was accusing his brothers and sister?"
"No," he sat back, chewing. "No he didn't go that far. Seemed to get a little embarrassed that he'd even mentioned it, clammed up."
"There you go. It just doesn't make much sense, Darryl." I looked around, trying to find our waitress.
He sat in silence for a few moments, licking his fingers, and took a pull from his beer. I almost felt sorry for him, for some reason. As if it mattered that his ridiculous idea about William had fallen apart.
"Listen," he said suddenly, animating. "Will you talk to them?"
I blinked. "Excuse me? Talk to who? The Benderbys? About this?"
He nodded enthusiastically."Yeah! Come on, Stevie. In know it's crazy, but...put yourself in my position. A friend of mine-of ours-told me he was afraid of being murdered. Not so long later, he's dead. I feel like I owe it to Billy to investigate, to at least make sure." He leaned in closer. "What if...what if he was murdered? Think about it, Steve. Your own blood, cutting you down. I think that's worth a visit, a phone call."
"Then why me? Darryl, he confided in you. Maybe you should talk to Mickey, Dan, and Carol." This felt, to me, like a master stroke, and I searched the bar for the waitress again, feeling my departure was imminent.
"No, Steve-they won't talk to me. I've been hanging around with William, don't you see? I've run into them with him a few times. They'd be suspicious." He blinked. "I think they are suspicious, actually." He looked at me directly. "It has to be you. You knew him, and them, so you could come up with an excuse to see them. But they know you haven't spoken to Billy in years, so they won't suspect you."
I stared at him. "That's crazy, Darryl." Mainly, though, the thought of putting my will against the Benderbys' combined will made me sweat. I saw their cool, blank stares and pictured myself insinuating myself into their lives, asking questions, interrupting them in some way. Bothering them. It seemed impossible.
"Okay, it's crazy-just talk to them! Ask Carol out for a drink, run into them somewhere, whatever. just get a feeling. If you come back to me and say I'm nuts after you talk to them, then, okay."
"Then okay, huh?" I tossed some money onto the table and stood up. "Sorry, Darryl, but your vague unease about something William said before he died isn't good enough to get me to humiliate myself."
He stared at the bills sitting damply on the table. "So that's it, huh? You're afraid of them. Afraid of looking bad in their eyes."
I shrugged my raincoat back on and picked up my small umbrella. "Good to see you Darryl. My advice is, don't let these paranoid fantasies get a hold of you."
But on the drive home, I kept thinking about it. I kept seeing their
blank, burned eyes. The way they'd formed up as a group, a wall
of Benderby ready to resist any attempt to break through. The look of them-calm, cool, rich and obviously together-stayed with me until I pulled over to the side of the highway, flashers on and rain pouring down onto my car. Traffic sped by me as I sat drumming my fingers against the steering wheel, trying to ferret out the stone in my shoe concerning William Benderby-a man I'd barely known, and hadn't seen in some years-and his untimely death. After a few minutes, it was obvious: What bothered me was that I could see his brothers and sisters doing it. Killing him. I couldn't imagine why, or how, but I could see them doing it.
I put the car back on the road carefully and drove home thoughtfully. Damp and tired, I parked illegally and walked home hunched over my feet, staring at the damp sidewalk, feeling defeated. Inside my small apartment, which was, at least, dry and acceptably neat, I took off my damp shoes and slouched on the bed for a moment before picking up the phone and calling directory assistance. I let the operator connect me for a fee.
"Hello, Darryl?" I said.
"Who is this?" He sounded tired.
"Steve. We spoke this afternoon."
"I'll do it. I'll call up Carol Benderby tomorrow and at least feel her out. I'll let you know."
There was a moment of silence. "Can I ask what changed your mind?"
This time I hesitated. I wasn't sure how to respond, so I humiliated myself by smiling in the empty room. "Maybe I just want to see Carol again."
He didn't respond right away, and I gripped the phone nervously, feeling ridiculous. "Okay-I think that's great, Steve. Thank you-it makes me feel better about the whole thing. You'll let me know what happens? If anything?"
We hung up, and I sat there for a few moments, feeling foolish. Then I finished pulling off my clothes and crawled into bed.
The next morning I woke up early, called in sick, and spent two hours getting dressed and groomed for my phone call to Carol Benderby. I felt it was very important to have a psychological edge when speaking to her-I knew it was ridiculous, in a way, but I was intimidated by the woman, and thought that if I felt cool and collected, I'd have a chance of not sounding perfectly foolish when she answered the phone. The end result saw me showered, shaved, and dressed in a tie and sports jacket, on my third cup of coffee, staring grimly at the phone on the table in front of me. I felt like a jackass. Still, after a final sip of black, bitter coffee I picked up the phone and dialed the number I'd gotten from directory assistance.
It was one of the brothers, and I almost hung up. I froze and stared at nothing for a few moments, trying to formulate a plan on the fly-for some reason I had assumed Carol would answer, and all of my carefully planned patter was formulated with that assumption in mind. The wrong voice left me flummoxed.
"Hi!" I had no idea which brother it was. I ran through my options: Guess, pretend I knew but omit the name, pretend I didn't know the brothers and just ask for Carol-but this took so long the anonymous Benderby on the other end of the line lost patience. I heard the cracking sound of a phone receiver being transferred from one position to another.
"Yes? May I help you?"
He was polite and precise in his diction, but there was a slight slur to his clipped tones, a softening around the vowels, and I thought I would take a chance.
"Daniel? It's Stephen Drake."
An embarrassing delay, then, as he obviously didn't place the name immediately. I sat there in breathless silence, wondering what I could do to cover the faux pas for both of us. But he recovered with a nasty little laugh.
"Oh-yes, Stevie, how are you?"
Translated, I thought, it was how did you get this number?
"Fine, Daniel, fine. Sorry to trouble you. I'm actually trying to reach Carol."
"Ah," he said wetly, with an obvious leer, "Carol! She isn't here, Stevie. Can I take a message?"
I had an immediate sense that she was, in fact, standing right there, smiling. I felt foolish and warm, suddenly. The goddamn Benderbys.
"Just let her know I called, and ask her to call me back-here's my number."
I read it out and he made a verbal show of taking it down, repeating each digit and reading it back to me. I imagined him drumming his fingers and rolling his eyes as we went through this charade.
"Thanks for calling, Stevie," he sang out, before I could say anything more, and the line went dead.
I went through the rest of the day resenting everyone. My suit itched terribly, and my shoes pinched my toes. I kept replaying Daniel's voice in my head, and each time it grew more mocking, more knowing, more dismissive. Eventually the technical wizards in my mental crime unit erased the background noise and digitally enhanced my memories so that Carol's mocking chuckle could be heard clearly when Daniel had exclaimed Carol!. I saw her clearly, standing there next to him in a sheer teddy, gorgeous and amused that I would think she'd spend time with me.
The problem was, instead of being angry, I was humiliated. I wanted the Benderbys to think of me as an equal, as someone they could conceive of spending time with. Being dismissed by Daniel like that burned on the way down.
But when I got home, there was a message on my machine from Carol. She sounded perfectly normal, pleased, even, to have heard from me. She left her private line and said she looked forward to hearing from me. I poured myself a mild drink and sat next to the machine, sipping and thinking. Had it all been in my head? Was I still a kid, a self-doubting eighteen-year-old who imagined a gulf between me and my betters? The goddamn Benderbys had money, that was it.
It wasn't of course. They were also blessed with looks and brains, which just made the money overkill. But still: I sat in the quiet of my dusty apartment and thought, they get lonely, too. They have doubts, too. They had faults. Daniel was a drunk. Who knew what the other two had to hide.
And, I thought reluctantly, maybe they'd killed their brother.
I called her back, and she answered on the third ring, sounded breathless and then, to my surprise, delighted to hear from me. I pictured her at the funeral, and even if it had been her brother's funeral, it didn't jibe with the muted, monofaced woman who'd stiffly introduced me around to her brothers. We didn't have too much to say, and danced around a little-I got the feeling she was wondering why I'd called, and eventually made a date for dinner the next night. After I hung up I realized I'd never seen her away from her brothers. I wondered if she'd shine more brightly away from them, or less, if she'd be different, or more herself.
I spent the night drinking. I didn't intend to, but one cocktail turned into two, and then three, and then one with dinner, and before I knew it I was drunk and listening to music at high volume, wandering around my apartment with a drink in my hand, thinking. I did this, sometimes. At first it was fun to be a little high and contemplative, moving through my own space. But usually I got depressed after a while, and I always woke up hungover the next day and good for nothing. This night I got drunk on Scotch, clinking the ice in my glass as I padded, barefoot and still in my suit, through the place, taking an obscure joy in my own space, spartan and bachelor as it was, but arranged to my liking, according to my sensibilities. I ended up out on the fire escape, the poor man's terrace, thinking about William Benderby, and whether his own family had killed him.
On the face it, absurd. The Benderbys had been strange, aloof rich kids, but they were family. They stuck together. That had been one of the things which had bothered me so much when I'd visited with him: The Benderby kids gave you the distinct impression that the only people who mattered were them, that if you weren't related to them, if they couldn't smell your genetic code on your skin, you were just furniture. Bill hadn't given me that impression when we'd been alone at school. It was only when we were immersed in his family that I got the feeling, strong and certain, that they considered themselves a race apart.
By midnight I was bombed, and sleepy, sitting on the fire escape and watching the trees in the backyard. I fell asleep there.
I glanced up at the bartender, startled, and considered.
I didn't want to be drunk when Carol arrived, but she was late and I didn't want to just sit at the bar. A drink would at least occupy my hands. The first Scotch had threatened to reignite my hangover, but about halfway through everything had settled down again, and now all I felt was a little sluggish and very hungry.
She arrived a moment later, just as my fresh drink was placed in front of me. She was apologetic, and awkward. She was wearing a knee-length skirt and a white blouse, her hair up in a bun. She smelled wonderful. A three-second erotic movie, starring her and quite ancient, unspooled in my mind, there and gone. I was instantly eighteen again, unsure of myself and tortured on a nightly basis by visions of Carol Benderby.
She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek.
"I'm so sorry! Something's come up. We have to go meet Danny and Mick."
I tried to cover the sinking feeling of terror that enveloped me. I took a gulp of Scotch.
She touched my arm. "I know, it's crummy of me, but it can't be helped. I'm sorry! But we have to go. They're waiting."
I stood up on wobbly legs and fished in my pocket for money. "What's happened? Would it be better if we just canceled?"
She made a shocked face. "No! No, I feel badly enough about this as it is. No emergency-just something's come up. I tried to call, but you'd already left, and I don't have any other way to reach you."
We walked to another bar a few blocks away. I was in a daze, and struggled to be polysyllabic as she chatted gaily. It felt like a setup, as if she'd decided she couldn't meet me without the support of her family. The goddamn Benderbys were like one unit with three bodies. When she reached over and took my arm in a calculated gesture of affection, I was suddenly alarmed, and convinced that there was a plan being followed here. Something had rallied the Benderbys.
Arriving at the new bar, my conviction that this was a setup solidified: Mick and Dan were seated at a bar table, two empty chairs ready and waiting for us. Dan slouched over a full ashtray, his tie undone and his jacket wrinkled. Mickey beamed at us, crisp and bright-eyed, looking clean and vibrant, a new penny. He held a cigarette in a strange way, pinched delicately between his forefinger and thumb, away from him as if he didn't like the smell and found cigarettes distasteful. I had the immediate impression they'd both been there for quite some time, and it was easy to imagine Carol with them, plotting. I felt foolish, and covered it with bluster, made easier by the two Scotches sloshing around inside me.
"Drake!" Mick shouted, waving. "Good of you to come. Sorry about busting up the date."
He held out his hand and eyed me flatly as he said this, and I shook back with calculated force.
"Yes, we feel badly about it," Dan offered. "It can't be helped, though. Car here is our only ride home."
"We'd take the bus or something," Mick said without enthusiasm, "but we took a poll and between the three of us, we have about three dollars."
Dan laughed and pinged the side of his glass with a manicured nail. "We know the guy who owns this place," he said, sounding amused. "We run a tab."
"Speaking of," Mick said, straightening up. "What'll everybody have? It's that time again."
We ordered drinks, and Mick made his way to the bar. For a moment we just sat there, unsure of what to say to each other.
"I'm sorry, again, for your loss," I said soberly, feeling foolish. Dan and Carol looked at each other.
"That's nice of you, Steve," Dan said. he looked from Carol to me. "No, really, it's very good of you to be concerned, but it's okay. We'll always miss William, but what's done is done. We're not a family that believes in being overly emotional. Bill did what he did and he's gone. The rest of us are still here."
Carol put her hand on my arm and squeezed. "That's sweet," she said, smiling.
I knew I was being conned.
"And now," Dan said, slapping the table loudly with his hand. "No more 'so sorries' or 'how are yous', no more dour faces and whispered condolences, yes?" He nodded at Carol and then turned to nod at me. "Yes? Yes! Motion passed. We've ruined Car's date but we can at least aspire to being entertaining about it. Steve, the drinks are on us, and we'll sing and dance if you like. Though I don't recommend that you ask us to."
Carol laughed. "No! Please don't."
Mick arrived with our drinks in a complex arrangement held in place by friction and surface tension. Extracting drinks from this arrangement proved difficult, but after a slight spillage incident we each had our cocktail, and an awkward moment of silence descended on us. I looked from Benderby to Benderby, getting angry at this intrusion and manipulation-anger fueled by an undercurrent of embarrassment as I contemplated the fact that Carol had only agreed to meet me in order to manipulate me into this meeting.
I settled back and tried to look relaxed. "So, what does everyone want to talk about?"
They looked at each other in turn, three gorgeous siblings. in the face of that fierce, beautiful light, I took refuge behind my glass and sipped Scotch desperately.
"Well," Dan said with a grin-so easy, I had to bite my lip to stop myself from smiling back. "Steve, we have to admit we set you up. We all wanted to meet with you."
I nodded. "Why?"
The Benderby Look again, a quick scan of each other's eyes, slight nods of their heads, and then it was Dan again, the Master of Benderby Ceremonies.
"Well, we think we know what's behind your sudden interest in us."
"It's that supreme motherfucker," Mick interrupted. "Darryl Simmons."
Dan winced a smile. "C'mon, Mickey," he said, his bright, clear eyes on me. "Don't be a dick." He shrugged his eyebrows at me. "Mick's a little pissed at Darryl, you'll have to forgive him. Steve, I'll be plain with you: We suspect Darryl's spoken to you, and that's why suddenly, after ten years, you want to date Carol."
I fought off a wince and gripped my cold glass tightly. "I see. Sure I saw Darryl at the funeral." I started to say something more, but then hesitated, and closed my mouth.
Another Benderby Look. "Well, Steve," Dan said with a slight hint of exasperation, subtly communicating his disappointment in my denseness and anti-Benderby attitude-a disappointment that beat at my face like a warm wind. "We think he told you he think we, uh-sorry Car-killed Billy."
"Fucking asshole," Mick muttered. fiercely, knocking back his own drink.
"Mickey, please." Carol said, offering me a nervous smile. "He's upset."
I looked at them all. I was conscious of the gulf between us: rich, beautiful Benderbys and people like me, whom they sometimes liked, sometimes pitied, and always treated with the sort of careful politeness that managed to convey amazing depths of disdain. "He mentioned this to me," I said, and took a long sip of my drink.
Dan and Mick stared at me, waiting. I imagined they were willing me to keep talking. I could feel their feathery thoughts against my face.
"Jesus, Stephen," Carol finally muttered, collapsing back into her seat. "What did you think about it? This isn't a game."
"Oh, really?" A flare of anger broke through and I fanned it a little, grabbing hold and letting my burned hands make me even angrier-I thought anger was really all I had against them, the goddamned Benderbys. "So luring me out here under false pretenses, ambushing me, ganging up on me-that isn't a game?" I struggled to find a tone of tired disdain. "You could have just asked me, Carol."
She looked away, and a tiny thrill of triumph whipped through me. "I suppose we should have," she said to her lap.
Mick slammed his glass down onto the table. "All right, Drake," he growled, his words a little soft and squishy, a little watery. "We're asking now."
Dan reached over and put a hand on his brother's arm. "Sorry, Steve," he said with a quick smile. "Mick's upset. He doesn't mean to be rude."
"Of course not, but he has a point," Carol said, reaching out to touch my arm again. "We're asking now, Steve," she said. "Did Darryl talk to you about Billy? About. . .us killing Billy?"
Mick's face darkened again, and he slapped the table hard enough to make our drinks jump. "That little bastard had better not ever step in front of me," he snarled. Dan was up immediately, pulling him away from the table. "Okay, all right, excuse us, Steve."
The brothers walked away, Dan with his arms locked around Mick's shoulders, pulling, Mick stumbling to keep up.
I stared at Carol over the rim of my glass, and she stared back at me. We regarded each other for a moment.
"You believe it," she said, her voice flat. "You think we killed William. Our own brother."
I nodded. "I didn't before. Before I was just curious. I believe it now."
"Because of this little drama tonight. I'll admit I wanted to get a feeling-Darryl planted a seed and I had to see for myself. I thought I'd dance around it a little with you tonight, get a feeling. Instead, I'm met with the full-court press from the whole family. Which makes me suspicious."
She leaned back, pulled her handbag towards her, and began rooting around in it, finally producing a pack of cigarettes. I didn't recognize the brand, and they were unfiltered. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, stopped myself from gulping more Scotch, and wanted nothing more than to go home.
Lighting her cigarette with a thin silver lighter, she regarded me for a moment. "We didn't kill our own brother, Steve. You're here because someone you hadn't seen in a decade pulled you aside and told you about a conversation he'd had with William-yes, yes, he told us." She waved smoke away from her. "Darryl is a very strange man, Steve. He's been bothering us for years now. Hanging around. Acting like we're all great friends-William was always the nicest of us, always the one who took in the injured animals and the pity-cases." She paused, as if suddenly wondering if I was bright enough to put myself in the latter category. "William was a sweetheart, and he didn't have the heart to make Darryl go away. but he never liked Darryl. He felt sorry for Darryl. And Darryl took his pity, and his niceness, and turned it into this weird hero-worship thing, where Bill was his great friend, confiding in him, and his brothers and sister were bad people trying to hurt him." She paused to stare at her cigarette, her beautiful face flat and still. When she turned her gray eyes to me, I imagined I could feel their force. "Darryl needs help. You're the victim of a delusion."
I considered this, and had to admit it could certainly be true.
Across from me, she suddenly sighed and leaned forward, a palpable softening of her demeanor that surprised me. "Listen, Steve, I don't know you all that well, but I remember you as a nice guy, and you seem to be one. You're not the first person Darryl has convinced to come at us like this."
I blinked. "What?"
She smiled sadly. "I'm sorry. It started a few years ago. Darryl would make up these things, these little dramas. First we were plotting to disinherit William, take his share of our family's money away from him. Then, having failed that, we were supposedly physically abusing William, beating him, but in subtle, clever ways that never showed any marks. Darryl made stuff up like this all the time, and every now and then he would dig up some old acquaintance of William's and convince him that these things were happening. Every now and then he'd be so convincing they'd actually try and intervene. Usually William would talk to them, explain things, and that would be that. but, of course, William's not here any more. So we have to convince you, I suppose."
I digested this, careful to keep my face blank. But my nerve broke under her steady gaze, and I brought my glass up to roll it across my forehead.
"Jesus," I said.
She nodded, once, crisply. "I know-none of this is fair to you, I suppose."
I stood up as Dan and Mickey returned, still whispering. Dan broke away, spreading his hands. "Not giving up on us already, Stevie?!"
I shook my head and gulped down the remainder of my Scotch. "Thanks for the drink. I gotta go."
They didn't try to stop me. There were no fakely hearty protests, no scrambles to buy me one more for the road. Carol didn't move, or even look at me. I had to push past Dan and Mickey awkwardly on my way out, and I kept my eyes down. I imagined I could feel Mickey staring after me, but didn't credit it. I was afraid of Mickey, and would probably imagine his eyes on me a lot.
I walked home. A long way, but I felt drunker than I should have and wanted the air to clear my head and my blood. It was damp and heavy out, cool enough, but filled with repressed rain that the city didn't want to absorb. It was like swimming home.
The goddamn Benderbys were too smart, and too confident. facing them, it was impossible for me to resist them-it was like facing a hurricane-force wind and trying to breath normally. They sucked all the air from the room and left you relying on their words for air, and I didn't trust myself. But then, of course, what they'd said made sense. I didn't know Darryl any more than I'd known Billy. Ten years had gone by since I'd last hung out with Darryl, and even ten years ago I hadn't exactly known him intimately. How did I know he wasn't a nutjob?
Grimly, I considered the possibility that they were all nutjobs. I resolved to go home, take a shower, enter a twelve-step alcohol program, and never see or think about any of them again. But when I got home, there were messages waiting for me.
I stood in the dark, hands in pockets, and stared at the blinking red light on my answering machine. Two messages, and I had good guesses as to who had called. With a feeling of true foreboding, I pressed the PLAY button. Darryl's voice filled the air.
"Hey, Steve, it's Darryl. . .anxious to hear how your meeting with Carol went. Give me a call!"
The usual click, a beep, and then Carols' voice.
"Hello, Stephen," she said, sounding formal, cool. "I wanted to apologize for this evening. Cowardly to leave a message of apology, I know, but. . .I am really truly embarrassed. We thought we were handling this situation the best way possible. Please give me a call at your earliest opportunity."
Please give me a call at your earliest opportunity. . .the flatly formal words rang through my head like a weak echo. It was as if she were finalizing an awkward business deal-which, in a way, I guessed she was.
The silence after the messages was oppressive. I felt lonely-the night was barely begun, but mine was over. I could try and dig up some company, I could kill another bottle by myself, or I could lay around until I felt sleepy enough to go to bed. None of the options appealed to me, so I wandered around the apartment a little, hands in pockets, shiftlessly running my tired eyes over everything. When the knock came at my door, I turned and stared at it for a moment-it was so unexpected, I couldn't process the event at first. As I stood there, dumb, the knocking was repeated, louder, and suddenly morphed into a pounding that shook the door in its frame.
"Drake! Open up. Let's fuckin' talk."
It was Mickey Benderby, and he sounded very, very drunk. I'd seen Mickey appear to be completely sober after a long night of drinking, so this apparent inebriation worried me very much. How drunk, I wondered as I stood in the twilight of my dusty apartment, did Mickey have to be before it showed?
The pounding on the door became really loud, loud enough that one of my recalcitrant and unfriendly neighbors actually opened their door to complain. I only heard them as a blurry voice behind all the noise, but Mickey paused in his pounding.
"Fuck off! Private business, your fuckin' ashhole."
The pounding returned, so far advanced that it was really more like he was throwing himself against the door.
"Drake! Open up you fucking coward! You little shit! You nothing! Open the fucking door so we can talk like godfucking adults about this bullshit!" he screamed.
The door shuddered, the hinges visibly pulling away from the frame.
Where, I wondered in stunned astonishment, were his handlers, the ever-faithful brother and sister, who, I imagined, had been walking Mickey around bars and quietly sliding gold credit cards across tables ever since his growth spurt and hormone infusion?
The door was struck again, with a sharp crack of splintering wood filling the air. I was spurred into action: I took my hands out of my pockets and jumped a little in shock.
Mickey was just barking my name at this point: Drake! Drake! Drake!, each exclamation point accented by an assault on the door. When it finally crashed inward, splinters and light spilling in from without, I was paralyzed, and just stared at the shadowed figure of Mickey Benderby, richest psychotic alcoholic in the universe as he advanced on me, his hands just black fists at his side.
"You fucking shit," he growled, suddenly dropping the volume now that he was inside. Behind him, I could see forms, shadows, and hoped my neighbors were calling the police. Or at least marking the time of my death for the reporters.
I wanted to move. I very much wanted to move. But as he stalked towards me, I couldn't manage it. I just stared at him in shock. He seemed huge, a bubbling mass of beer muscle and watery eyes, and when he reached me and took my throat in one hand, cinching off my breath as if he'd been out in the hall practicing it all night long I could only bug my eyes out and stare at him, working my dry tongue around in my mouth spastically.
"You and Simmons, you little cockroaches," he hissed. His face wasn't making any sense to me: Too puffy, too twisted, too full of dark red blood. He wasn't human. He was Mickey Benderby, richest killing machine in the world.
Around the edges of my vision, a dark band began to form. My head felt stuffed with sand.
"Smartasses!" he growled. "Fucking smartasses. I had Billy riding me my whole life, and then I got you and fucking cockroach Simmons. Being smart-" his hands tightened on my throat. "-asses all the fucking time!"
I managed to raise my arms and put my hands on his shoulders, but a curious lethargy had crept over me, and I just flopped them onto his shoulders, as if hugging him. I was too weak to do anything else, so just left them there, but gravity took over soon enough as my knees gave out and I started to sink to the floor, dragging my useless arms with me. Mickey stayed with me, bending down almost gently in order to keep his hands around my throat. He wasn't even speaking English any more. He was just panting and grunting. The air between us smelled like used liquor. The dark band around my vision thickened and gelled. Everything inside it became pixelated, as if made up of huge blobs of color.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, a shiver of manic desperation shouldered its way through the gathering gloom and I tried to struggle out of Mick's grasp. I kicked my rubbery legs and twisted a little, and then paused, because someone was standing in the doorway. Two someones.
The dark band around my vision narrowed further, until it was circling Carol Benderby's face. I imagined our eyes met, but I couldn't be sure.
Jeff Somers publishes The Inner Swine. This is from the latest issue.